KASHIMA, IBARAKI PREF. – Kashima Antlers midfielder Gaku Shibasaki may be only 21, but such is the wise head on his young shoulders that 34-year-old club captain Mitsuo Ogasawara already considers him an “old man.”
Shibasaki has established himself as one of the J. League’s classiest operators in just 2½ years since joining Antlers from Aomori Yamada High School, gliding through midfield with a maturity far beyond his years to emerge as the new star of the seven-time champion Ibaraki club.
But behind the baby face lies an iron resolve. Shibasaki’s commitment to his craft has made a deep impression on a team even as experienced as Kashima, and former J. League player of the year Ogasawara believes his young apprentice has the right mentality to take him all the way to the top.
“I’ve never seen a 21-year-old like him before,” Ogasawara told The Japan Times. “His daily schedule is like an old man’s. He always goes to bed early, gets up early, and he’s always at training early to get prepared. He can go as far as he wants in the game.
“You rarely see a professional as dedicated as he is. He’s completely disciplined, and he’s been like that since he joined the club. He’s always had a clear vision of where he wants to be at each stage of his career.
“In the first year he set himself the target of getting into the first team, and in the second he established himself as a regular. His life revolves around football.”
Ogasawara is not the only one impressed by Shibasaki’s attitude. The midfielder was named J. League young player of the year last season after a series of fine displays, including a man-of-the-match, two-goal performance as Antlers beat Shimizu S-Pulse in the Nabisco Cup final.
But if the audience at the J. League awards was expecting a speech full of platitudes when he collected his prize, it was in for a big surprise. Instead Shibasaki delivered a brutally honest critique of his own shortcomings, lamenting his inability to keep pace with young talent around the world like Brazil’s Neymar and France’s Raphael Varane.
“I was happy to win the prize because it meant that people rated me highly as a player,” Shibasaki said at Kashima’s training ground earlier this week. “But if you look at my actual level, I still have a lot to do. Winning the prize doesn’t mean I can be satisfied with what I’ve achieved.
“Japanese football is growing little by little, and it’s great how much it has grown in the 20 years since the J. League started. But if you compare it to the rest of the world, we have nothing like the deep history that other countries have. If we want to compete as equals, Japan has to keep improving.”
Shibasaki has yet to make his international debut, but his involvement with the national team is surely just a matter of time. Only illness prevented him from fulfilling a callup for last month’s East Asian Cup in South Korea, and a place in next summer’s World Cup squad does not appear beyond his capabilities.
“It was very disappointing, but I got over it quickly,” Shibasaki said of his late withdrawal from the East Asian Cup squad. “I watched all the games. It couldn’t be helped, so now I just have to show what I can do in order to get another chance.
“The national team is only for players good enough to be called up, so first I have to do the business at Kashima. Of course I’m thinking about the World Cup. It’s one year away, and as long as there is still a chance, I’ll keep aiming for it. The World Cup is a marvelous stage, and I would love to be there.”
Kashima certainly seems like the ideal place for Shibasaki to continue his development, with battle-hardened veterans like Ogasawara, Masashi Motoyama and Takuya Nozawa providing all the midfield role models he needs before he makes the expected jump to Europe.
“They have all been playing for many years, and of course that experience is crucial for me,” Shibasaki said of his Antlers teammates. “As a player, I can only improve by being around them.
“If you stay in Japan, then you can still grow as a player, but moving abroad gives you a new stimulus and a new environment. I really don’t know when I’ll move overseas. It could be one year or two years from now — I have absolutely no idea.”
In the meantime, J. League fans still have the chance to enjoy Shibasaki’s talents for a little longer. Antlers face a tough game against Yokohama F. Marinos, the current league leaders, on Saturday, but Shibasaki is confident that a win can kickstart his sixth-place side toward another title challenge.
“All the games are important, but especially this week,” he said. “We are playing against the league leaders, and it’s the most important game we’ve had for a while. If we win, it will really help our chances of winning the league.
“Our results have been up and down, and we have had good and bad games. As a team we have to make sure that we continue the good things.”